A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.
–Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder
It’s a late October afternoon here in Appalachia, and the first frosty hints of evening are nipping at my fingers. I’m standing on a hillside watching the sun sink below the distant horizon. Overhead a few wispy clouds drift by, looking like silky strands of cotton against the deep blue background.
Beside me is a metal tube fitted with precision optics and mounted on a sturdy wooden base – a telescope. It’s one of the few material possessions that I actually cherish; not for what it is, but for what it allows me to do. With its help, I am able to transcend the limits of my frail human vision and catch a glimpse of God’s eternal majesty.
I must pause here to define my terms. By “God,” I don’t mean the fundamentalist demiurge who spat out the world in a six-day spurt of creative frenzy. Rather, I mean the God of Spinoza, Einstein, Darwin, and Whitehead, the One who is so closely identified with Her creation that the difference between the two is scarcely worth the mention.
I caught my first glimmer of this God when I was 10 years old, looking through a two dollar telescope purchased for me by my mother at a garage sale. It was a sultry summer evening in the late 1970s, just outside of Atlanta, Georgia where I grew up.
By today’s optical standards it was nothing to brag about, just a simple Newtonian reflector with a single eyepiece. But to me it was the portal to another world, as I discovered when I pointed it towards the moon and slid the eyepiece in and out of its holder until the image came into crystal clarity.
45 years later, I still remember that magical moment. The site of earth’s only natural satellite suspended in the heavens in all of its cratered glory made my mouth fall open and my eyes grow wide with wonder. I stayed glued to that spot for hours, tracking my celestial quarry across the sky until my mother came outside and reminded me that it was well past my bedtime. Slowly, reluctantly, I turned my eye away from the heavens and went in the house.
To this day, I regard the sense of wonder I felt on that evening as my first spiritual experience, a perfect moment in which I stepped outside the limits of my physical form to catch a glimpse of the transcendent Eternal. The quest to recapture that moment is what brings me back to lonely hillsides and windswept vistas night after night.
These days, my preferred observation spot is a scenic overlook off I-26 in the Appalachian foothills of Tennessee; a spot that turns pitch black once the sun goes down. Local legends say that it’s haunted by ghosts and occasionally visited by Bigfoot. So it’s no surprise that I’m usually all alone, especially in the autumn and winter months when the days grow short and the nights get cold.
On the rare occasions that I do have a visitor, the general reaction is courteous disinterest in my activities. This suits me just fine. I realize that most people have enough trouble dealing with earthly affairs to turn their attention towards the heavens.
But there’s an interesting exception to this rule. It occurs whenever I encounter a person of faith, which, in my neck of the woods, usually means a Southern Baptist or Protestant Pentecostal.
These folks actively want to share my stargazing experience. They wait patiently as I turn the scope to an object of interest, and gasp in astonishment when they look through the eyepiece. When they finally regain the capacity for speech, they thank me for the opportunity and wish me a good night.
The peculiar thing about my encounters with these people is the vast gulf between their respective worldviews and mine. I left the Evangelical Christianity of my youth decades ago to embrace a more eclectic form of spirituality. These days, I’m more likely to quote a verse from the Dao de Ching or the Dhammapada than the New Testament.
But my interest in Eastern philosophy is only the beginning of my heresies. I also accept the theory of evolution. Not only that, but I acknowledge the universe I adore as the product of the Big Bang, not the first chapter of Genesis.
I also have an affinity for the dark side. I seek spiritual advice from pagans, and I love to celebrate Halloween. I find myself frightened far more by Donald Trump than by the devil. I detest tobacco, but enjoy a good shot of whiskey.
As for prayer, I believe it has value, but more for its meditative effects than its ability to change the mind of the Almighty. When someone recovers from cancer, I thank God for modern medicine, not for miraculous intervention. I think the US is a wonderful country. But I believe it was founded by George Washington, not Jesus.
Needless to say, none of these positions would put me in good company with the people who visit me during my astronomical adventures. Yet, paradoxically, discussions of such theological matters never occur when we’re standing together under a star-studded sky.
This may be due to the fact that I’m a white man living on the buckle of the Bible belt. It’s only natural to assume that a spiritually-minded person in this area accepts the default tribal narrative. If I was a brown-skinned person living in India, my visitors would probably assume I’m a Hindu paying homage to the handiwork of Vishnu. If I was in California, I might be interpreted as a secularist who defines himself as “spiritual but not religious.”
There is another possibility, however, one which I prefer to believe. It’s the simple acknowledgment that some experiences transcend the limiting confines of human language or concepts. Any authentic encounter with the Ultimate is more likely to inspire silence than stimulate verbal exchange.
This is just as true for Evangelical Christians as it is for Trappist monks or Buddhist pilgrims. All of us are prone to intellectual straitjackets. All of us are also capable of transcending those limitations during a genuine encounter with the Divine.
After those rare, precious moments, we find ourselves unable to describe what has happened. We only know that it was life-changing and transformative. The aftereffects of the experience comes not from the content of our conversations but the alteration to our actions.
Perhaps this is why the Buddha, on being asked to describe Nirvana, could only smile and point at a lotus flower. Perhaps it’s why Thomas Aquinas could never fit his beatific vision within the confines of his Catholic theology.
Perhaps it’s why my astronomical companions fall speechless at their first glimpse of what lies beyond Earth’s atmosphere. During those times, the best response is to simply gaze in grateful silence at the overwhelming wonder of the world around us.
This was the realization which astounded me when I was 10 years old. It continues to astound me more than four decades later. I have both appreciation for the experience and the utter inability to put it into words.
But, if I was forced to choose a specific term, I would select the common English term “gratitude.” Whether we call it God, the Dao, or simply the Universe, we are truly blessed to be part of it all. Think about that the next time you look up at the evening sky.